BY CARY GINELL
On October 2, Camarillo Skyway Playhouse debuts its production of Nine. Based on Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film, 8 1/2, the musical version, which features a score by Maury Yeston, tells the story of Guido Contini, a film director approaching his 40th birthday who undergoes a midlife crisis as he is surrounded by a bevy of women desiring his attentions. Nine won a Tony Award in 1982 for Best Musical. Recently, I met with four of the show’s stars for supper and a round-table discussion of their respective characters, the show’s unusual storyline, and celebrated score. The quartet included Andy Mattick, playing Italian film director Guido Contini, Alexandra Lastort as his wife Luisa, Mary Zastrow as Claudia, his former protegée, and Sara Marie Calvey as Carla, his mistress.
VCOS: How is Nine different from other shows you’ve appeared in?
ALEX: It’s not your typical musical musical. It has a deeper story than a lot of the shows I’ve done. There’s a lot more to get into with the characters and the performances. There are some big, campy numbers, but it’s not your typical show.
VCOS: So it’s not a standard boy-meets-girl, they-fall-in-love, enter-conflict, conflict-resolved theme that is resolved neatly at the end.
MARY: It’s more like, “He falls in love…he falls in love…he falls in love” (laughs)
SARA: I think it kind of is “boy-meets-girl,” because he meets these three different women who are all separate parts of what he is looking for in a romantic partner. Claudia’s his muse, Carla’s his passion, and Luisa is his strength and his rock.
VCOS: Who is directing?
ANDY: That would be Ken Patton.
VCOS: Did he ask any of you to bone up on Fellini in preparing for your roles?
ANDY: He made no requirements of me, however, I watched the film that it’s based on a couple of times and did a little bit of research on Fellini. It’s been helpful.
VCOS: How so?
ANDY: There were a couple of choice points for me. The Criterion Collection of 8 1/2 includes a wonderful biographical book on Fellini as well as commentary tracks from historians about him. A couple of the tidbits that I found rather cogent when it comes to thinking about Carla in particular, is that they talked specifically about how Fellini cast his real-life mistress in that movie as the mistress. As a part of that, he had a relationship with her for seventeen years. And the perspective I put that in is that I celebrated my 15th anniversary two weeks ago, but he had the same mistress for seventeen years. Fellini was so disciplined and structured about his affair that he never stayed the night. It was a very formalized role for him. When I look at Luisa, what is also true is that Fellini was married to the same woman for 60-plus years when he died, and she stood by him. So as he writes himself into that movie, and as Yeston captures some of that, I look at the folks that surround me and consider that kind of dynamic, the faithfulness and stability of Luisa, and the passion of and the structure of the relationship with the mistress, Carla. The movie itself is just really visually stunning. And absurd, at times. But I just found it fascinating.
VCOS: How does this translate onto the stage? You have fantasy vs. reality and they’re constantly going back and forth with one another.
ANDY: Absolutely. We were talking about Ken Patton. One of Ken’s decisions with casting was to not include an ensemble. All ten women who appear on stage, from Luisa to the nine that make up the women in the title, they are the Greek chorus for the show. There are times where Alex will move up in the gallery and just be another showgirl, and then come out and be the wife. So with that style, it becomes a little bit of a surreal visual where these people who have defined identities in roles are also a part of the overlay of Contini’s imagination in how these things unfold. I think it’s a brilliant choice and a unique challenge.
ALEX: Ken had a really clear vision, coming into auditions months before, of what he wanted. It’s been really neat to see it play out.
VCOS: Tell me about the score. This is one of the aspects of the show that is most celebrated, like in Titanic, where the score defeated any deficiencies there might have been in the script.
MARY: It’s definitely one of the more difficult scores I’ve sung, doing the ensemble and solo aspects of it. The meters are very different, vocally, there are many parts that are dissonant, and I don’t know how that reads to the audience. But it’s really like “how close are we together?” I’ve done a lot of Sondheim and this is definitely one of those shows where my ear says, “Is this correct?” (laughs)
SARA: Especially with my character. Her very first song is very swingy and up-tempo and then her second one is almost like an operatic ballad. So I feel that you are never stagnant in the show, because you are using so many different voices. It goes from a completely sung-through overture to almost silence when it’s one person. There’s a different push-and-pull that almost makes the show feel like a fever dream, because we all surround him so much and there’s this cacophony of our voices. It’s almost like the women are consistently in control.
VCOS: So does this take a lot of versatility vocally on your part?
SARA: For sure.
ALEX: Especially because we’re also the ensemble. And because without an ensemble, it’s just a small group. But there are times when it’s one person who is carrying a part, and some of the songs have six-part harmony.
MARY: This is the first time I’ve really gotten to use my opera background in a show. My degree was in opera, so coming back to it six years later is like, “Whoa! Recitative! Welcome back to my life!” (laughs) So it’s very sophisticated, musically and I love that. I love every single score I’ve worked on, from all ends of the spectrum, depending on what type of musical it is, be it jazz or classical, but this is just a kind of mixture of multiple genres.
ANDY: Yeston did it as a student project at one point around 1972 and just started developing it. The first song he wrote was a lullaby, “Nine,” that Guido’s mother sings. And that’s probably the most straightforward piece in the show. He loves countermelody to the point that one of the solos that I have actually has Guido singing a countermelody with himself. But there are a number of songs where you might have two or three lines of people singing counter and at times less than intuitive melodies that all include syncopation and you’ve got to know your counts and times. It’s invigorating, to say the least.
MARY: It’s mixing that how-do-you-feel-it with the math of it together.
ALEX: But it’s still accessible. The melodies – they’re beautiful and they stick with you.
MARY: Your melody gets in my head a lot, Alex.
ALEX: Yeah, the songs I sing are very conversational. Carla and Claudia have some really beautiful songs. My songs are beautiful but they are more passionate than anything. They’re in a very mid-range kind of thing where it sounds like I’m talking or yelling while I’m singing. It’s very conversational.
MARY: Your songs come out like they are her thoughts.
ALEX: All the music suits the character it has been given to, in a really great way.
VCOS: So Yeston uses a variety of different styles very meticulously and deliberately, right?
ANDY: Absolutely. There are almost comical, quick, 12/8-based, triplet-based, where the lyrics are just flying, and then in the second act, after a little ballad from Claudia, it breaks into an eighteen-minute opera section and then descends into broken-hearted parting music, where Contini has a breakdown on stage.
MARY: As he deserves.
ALEX: And it’s giving us all such good work to do, and you always don’t get that. There’s just so much good work to be done in this show.
VCOS: Do audiences today get it? This was first done more than 30 years ago but it’s still quite a forward thinking, challenging musical for audiences.
MARY: Stay tuned.
ALEX: That’s what I mean about it not being your traditional musical. It literally feels like it could be happening to people you know. It feels very realistic, like it’s a snapshot of all their lives.
VCOS: Do any of you use people in your real lives to help you with the experiences?
SARA: Not for me. For me, it’s fun because I’m normally someone who has only the best in mind for people on stage, even if I’m a little zany, but with Carla, she really only has her own interests at heart, most of the time. She really thinks that when Guido is with her, it’s only her. I do a lot of my studies by watching movies. Like when I had to be a pot smoker, I’d watch Half Baked so I could get into that lifestyle. I’ve never been drunk, so I just watch my friends. I’m very uninteresting (laughs). I don’t do a lot of things. But I use movies a lot, especially in the first act, for inspiration, like in the way she walks and moves. She has to be one of those characters who holds his interest all the time.
Nine plays at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse starting October 2. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.